How to Spot Fake News: Tips for Seniors

older man sitting on a bench outside and reading an ipad

From winged men on the moon to pizza with a side of conspiracy.

Fake news has been around for as long as we’ve had newspapers. Back in 1835, The New York Sun ran a story about strange-looking men on the moon. The paper attributed the source to a respected Scottish astronomer who had, in fact, discovered planets from his observatory but who had nothing to do with this so-called sighting. Attributing fake news to a respected source is a common trick for lending lies and half-truths an air of legitimacy. Many New Yorkers fell for the moon hoax and sales of The Sun took off like a rocket.

More recently, fake news on social media led a North Carolina man, armed with an assault rifle, to drive to Washington, D.C. to investigate a supposed pedophile ring at a pizza parlor. After firing his weapon and finding only kids playing ping-pong and families eating pizza, he realized “the intel on this wasn’t 100 percent.”

To understand how someone could believe such a bizarre story, you have to remind yourself that news on social media isn’t fact-checked like the mainstream news older adults grew up with. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter make it easy to spread trending stories without taking time to evaluate them. And if news on social media is shared by a friend in your social circle, you’re less likely to fact-check it. That’s one way fake news spreads like wildfire throughout social networks. More sophisticated methods, such as automated accounts (aka bot farms), can repost fake news on social media to help it go viral.

Don’t take the clickbait.

By definition, fake news is information created to deliberately mislead or deceive, although sometimes it’s simply a case of inaccurate reporting or someone pushing out content to meet a deadline without checking the facts or providing context.

Publishers of fake news want to influence your views, push a political agenda, or cause confusion. They may also be in it for the money. Sensational, misleading stories grab readers’ attention, which leads advertisers to place their ads on sites where stories are trending (think of them as modern-day tabloids).

How to spot fake news when you see it.

Fake news is often too good to be true, too extreme, or too out of line with what you know to be true and what other news sources are telling you. Here are some suggestions for recognizing fake news when you’re browsing the web or catching up with friends on Facebook:

  • Consider the source: Who created the story? Go to their “About Us” section and look for insufficient or overblown language. Do a quick search on the author. Are they credible and real?
  • Look at the URL: Reliable websites have familiar names and end in .gov, .edu, .org, or .com. Many false news sites mimic authentic news sources by making small changes to the URL. For example, “abcnews.com.co (an illegitimate site) versus the actual “abcnews.com.”
  • Be skeptical of headlines: False news stories often have schlocky tabloid headlines in all caps with exclamation points. Another clue is when the headline has no connection to the story. The headline is written to make you click to read the story.
  • Watch for unusual formatting: Many false news sites have misspellings or awkward layouts. Read carefully if you see these signs.
  • Check the evidence: Check the author’s sources to confirm they’re accurate. Do they support the story? Lack of evidence or reliance on unnamed experts may indicate a false news story.
  • Is the story a joke? Sometimes false news stories can be hard to distinguish from humor or satire. Check whether the source is known for parody, and whether the story’s details and tone suggest it may be just for fun.
  • Reverse image search: If an image used in a story appears on other websites about different topics, it’s a good sign the image isn’t actually what the story claims it is.
  • Do some fact-checking: Websites such as FactCheck.org, PolitiFact.com and Snopes.com can help fact-check a story to identify fake news. They maintain lists of known fake news sites and have most likely fact-checked the latest viral claim to pop up in your news feed.

Stop the spread of fake news.

Now that you know how to spot fake news, you can help halt its spread by not sharing it on social media. For stories you’ll want to share with friends, head on over to our Facebook page. It’s fact-checked and friend-approved.